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Malmberg explains that holistic management moves ranchers forward

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Holistic management helps ranchers go from where they are to where they want to be.

According to Tony Malmberg, who has been a holistic grazer for the last 30 years, with the acceleration of climate change, producers need to use resilience to determine how to get something back after hard, tough times, like massive drought. “People think of holistic management as grazing and ecosystem management, but it is much more than that,” Malmberg told producers. “It is a decision-making framework where producers can influence ecological, economic and social systems so they have more resilience.”

The fundamentals of holistic management are the missing keys and a new reality of where producers thought they would be, Malmberg continued.

“From a holistic perspective, complexity can not be managed because complexity is self-organized,” he explained.

He also said, there are relationships between variables, and there are a lot of variables on a ranch.


Malmberg discussed biological decomposition and how it helps the environment.

“Biological decomposition allows carbon to decompose into the soil,” he explained, “while chemical decomposition decomposes carbon into the air.”

“Biological decomposition builds soil and organic matter,” Malmberg said.

When carbon is decomposed into the soil, it produces more organic matter and allows the soil to hold more water. For biological decomposition to occur, humidity is needed at the soil surface.

The best way to get humidity at the soil surface is through the gut of a grazing animal, Malmberg said. Different environments respond to different tools, and Malmberg has found rest is the most important tool for biological decomposition to take place.


Malmberg then asked producers whether they prefer fresh, green lettuce in a salad bar or dried up, discolored lettuce.

“Overgrazing is grazing a plant before it can recover from previous grazing,” he said.

When animals are turned into a pasture, they will be drawn to the green, fresh plants first.

“Time and timing are important to manage,” he said. “Time is how long we are at a place before overgrazing occurs, and timing is when we come back.”

“I have never seen a plant that can grow faster than one inch per day. How long it can do that depends on the length of the fast-growing season, which differs by area,” he explained.

As a plant is grazed off, it keeps drawing from its root reserves. If a plant is overgrazed three times, it can die, according to research from Montana State University.

“Practically speaking, if we are in fast growth for 15 days and if our animals are in the same spot for 15 days in the spring during the fast growth period, we are killing plants,” he stated.

It is important to keep plants photosynthesizing to harvest that resource and keep the plants healthy and growing, Malmberg said. Since complexity cannot be managed, Malmberg said producers can only influence it.

“We can only manage where animals are, when the animal is there, its behavior while its there and when it leaves. That influences how the ecosystem responds. When we can understand that, we can influence it toward more diversity and complexity or toward simplicity,” he said.

Changing to holistic

Malmberg told ranchers he wasn’t always a holistic grazer. He started out as a season-long grazer and, after attending a seminar, tried rotational grazing.

“Then I read that riparian areas degrade if they are grazed longer than 28 days,” he said. “Research also said that riparian areas would improve if they were grazed less than 21 days, so I took that information and committed to not grazing any area longer than 28 days.”

Malmberg also found that he could manage his pasture horn fly population by moving the cattle every 10 days, which is the life cycle of the horn fly.

During the winter, he stockpiles feed and moves cattle every four days to maintain their nutritional level. He uses electric fence to maintain stock density.

“If the cattle are in a pasture for 60 days, the last 20 days they are losing weight,” Malmberg said. “If we graze four days then move the fence, they will have a more constant plane of nutrition.”

Using tools

Malmberg said each environment has different tools it will respond to.

For instance, producers can use a tool like overgrazing to control noxious plants like Canadian thistle and cheatgrass.

“The key to holistic management is to think through what we are doing and why we are doing it,” Malmberg said. “Recovery depends upon the species, ranch and management.”

Water is the most important issue to consider when combining herds or determining how many cattle can graze an area. Malmberg said if the area has a stream, he likes to measure the flow of the spring and calculate how much storage would be needed to store 24 hours of water.

“That defines the maximum number of animals we can have in that cell during that grazing spread,” he explained.

“If I can store 10,000 gallons of water in 24 hours, I should be able to run a couple hundred stock units,” he continued. “Water defines the boundaries. We just have to plan how to function within those boundaries.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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